Sparkle: Make That Plot Zippy!

When I’m reading a novel, there’s nothing more disappointing when–after a promising chapter one–the story slows and dulls down.

This week, I’ve been wading through excessive explanation, dialogue without conflict, and banal incidents strung together. It’s a second book from a new author whose debut last year was a real sparkler. Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. Alas, this one has all the zing of a wet sponge.

Do not let this happen to your story!

What do you do to avoid it?

Make sure you keep the plot strong by utilizing three techniques: hooks, conflict, and twists.

Hooks: You probably know there are myriad hooks of all shapes and effects. We’re not going to count them here. What’s essential to understand about them is that any hook you use should result in–unpredictability.

That means you open your story with a hook. You start your chapters with hooks. You end your scenes with hooks. You introduce your characters with hooks.

Grab your reader’s attention without stalling, without hesitating, without timidity. Think about the opening line to Sidney Sheldon’s IF TOMORROW COMES: “She undressed slowly, dreamily … and put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

I refer to this example often because it never fails to deliver zing. Sheldon leads your imagination in one direction (the feint) and then socks you with surprise (the upper cut). Is it subtle? Not at all. Hooks are not about subtlety. They’re about giving the reader entertainment.

Conflict: What makes a story boring faster than any other cause? Lack of sufficient conflict. If your protagonist isn’t in trouble, facing trouble, wading into trouble, or fleeing from trouble, YOUR BOOK IS IN TROUBLE.

It’s that simple. So what, exactly, is conflict?

Conflict is goals in opposition.

That’s a pat and quippy definition. What does goals in opposition mean?

Simply that as soon as your protagonist wants something specific, tangible, and obtainable, the antagonist will seek immediately to thwart the attainment of that objective.

Example: Polly Protagonist wants to buy a horse.

I’ll warn you right now that the above goal statement looks specific but is in fact vague. Push Polly to do better.

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis.

Why? (What’s her motivation?)

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis, because she’s dreamed about owning a horse of her own since she was a child. Every day, she drives home past the pasture where Artemis is grazing. She sees the sun glinting on his reddish coat. The wind tosses his dark mane and tail. She knows he’s a gentle animal from the times she’s sneaked over to the fence and lured him to her with apples and carrot chunks. She’s fallen in love with him, and she wants to take him home.

Now for the conflict. Remember that it’s goals in opposition. So we need Andy Antagonist to step in and thwart Polly. Andy can be the owner of Artemis, and he doesn’t want to sell. Or he can be a guy who wants to buy Artemis because he’s also fallen in love with the horse.

Again, in either scenario, you have to know why Andy is taking action. It needs to matter, so let’s push the scenario a bit and say that Andy has an autistic daughter and Artemis is the only creature the little girl has responded to. So he’s desperate to obtain this horse in order to help his child.

Now we have conflict between two people with valid reasons for being in opposition. Each wants to buy the horse. One wants the horse because of a lifelong dream. The other wants the horse for his daughter’s health.

Only one of them can buy the animal. Who will win? Which of them will persuade the owner to sell first? Who deserves to succeed over the other?

Weak conflict equals weak story.

No conflict equals dull story.

Strong conflict equals a story that has spark, life, and movement.

Twists: These are unexpected developments that turn the story in a new direction. A twist can appear as a plot point, a piece of information, an attack against the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares about, or a threat.

As with hooks, the effect that a twist should create is unpredictability. You may have only one twist in a short story. In a novel you need at least three, strategically placed so that a twist lands in each story act.

Keep your readers guessing. Keep your readers intrigued. Achieve this by doing anything but what’s expected, and motivate those surprising character actions through conflict and strong goals.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sparkle: Make That Plot Zippy!

  1. I think what you wrote about Andy and his motivation is what writers frequently forget about. If the writer can make me almost want to side with the antagonist, that’s good writing. But I shouldn’t ever change sides. In a few instances I’ve ended up siding with the antagonist and wished I hadn’t even read the book. 😦

    • You are so right! We want to dance close to sympathizing with some of these antagonists, but the writer shouldn’t manipulate us into changing sides. That’s where the writer loses control of the material. As readers, we end up emotionally confused and usually dissatisfied. Not good!

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